Old Forester bourbon: A timeline tasting

William M. Dowd photos

The content of this 1938 bottle of Old Forester actually was distilled in 1916.

LOUISVILLE, KY -- The average person doesn't live long enough to sample the total range of output of a long-time whiskey distillery. That's what made a tasting of Old Forester bourbons held here this week so special.

The occasion was put together by Chris Morris (below left), master distiller who is behind today's expressions of Old Forester (as well as Woodford Reserve) from the Brown-Forman company, in honor of the 162nd birthday of its founder, George Garvin Brown.

More than 100 bourbon connoisseurs gathered in the Victorian richness of the Filson Historical Society headquarters to sample a selection of six Old Forester whiskies in a timeline tasting that ranged from 1916 to 2008.

Such a lineup would be difficult enough to arrange for any brand, given the scarcity of old whiskies, but it was accomplished with the assistance of Michael R. Veach, Filson's Special Collections Assistant and a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame since 2006 who said he has found rare whiskies through auctions and private sales.

Old Forester was founded in 1870 by Brown. His company survived Prohibition when his son, Owsley Brown, obtained one of only 10 federal licenses to continue selling whiskey — for medicinal purposes. Thus, Brown-Forman is the only existing U.S. company in the spirits and wine business that has spanned pre-, during and post-Prohibition periods. Since 1902, Old Forester -- which began as a blend of other people's whiskies -- has been distilled by Brown-Forman at three successive facilities.

The yeast strain used today was isolated in 1929 when Brown and his cohorts needed to restart fermentation after other strains died out during Prohibition.

Here's a brief look at the timeline tasting:

1916 Old Forester: This bourbon was distilled in 1916, the year before George Garvin Brown died, but languished in wood barrels for 22 years, forgotten during Prohibition. After so long in the wood, it was truly a unique bourbon: 100 proof, a very dark color with a smell of molasses and lots of oak. Heavy in tannins, with notes of prune and bittersweet chocolate but none of the signature caramel and vanilla for which bourbon is known. Surprisingly, it was quite palatable.

1933 Old Forester President's Choice: This single barrel expression was the first post-Prohibition bourbon from Brown-Forman. It carried a golden color and spicy notes with the expected caramel and vanilla notes. Rich and oaky, in the classic dry bourbon style.

1992 Old Forester: This is the Old Forester that dipped to 86 proof and came from the present distillery in Shively, KY. A milder, softer flavor profile and light amber color differentiate it from the long-time run of Old Forester bourbon. Brown spices, wood, caramel and tobacco notes are prevalent and this expression tastes more of rye than its predecessors.

Today's Old Forester 86 Proof: Even more amber in color than earlier versions. Soft and sweet yet with a pleasant bite of spice carried along with the traditional vanilla, caramel and oak notes.

Old Forester Signature: This is the 100 proof modern expression that Chris Morris calls "a salute to the original." It is a blend of mingled seasons and goes back to the dark orangey color and less sweetness, leaning instead toward more spice, wood and fruit. It's a cool, calm bourbon with no burn.

This is a historic creation, marking the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition with a new version of the first whiskey brand ever to be bottled (1870). I had a preview tasting of it although it won't go on sale until November.

Old Forester Repeal Bourbon: This one-time, limited-release expression created to mark the anniversary of Prohibition's repeal, is a classic bourbon with its vanilla, caramel and brown sugar notes and orange-amber coloring, but it is much more complex than that. A definite note of chocolate and berries gives it a chocolate-covered cherry characteristic. Orange notes that are suggested by the coloring begin to come through as the whiskey opens up, and the well-oaked liquid carries hints of spice and mint. This is, overall, a warm, crisp, satisfying bourbon.

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antmanfoam said...

I'd give my left cubicle for that bottle.

William M. Dowd said...

I suspect you’ll have to be satisfied with my photo of it, but you can always dream. In your cubicle.

Carl Mattson said...

I was recently contacted by a friend who has 30 bottles of what I believe to be Old Forester President's Choice Bourbon.

Can you tell me what that would probably be worth and where we could find interested buyers?


William M. Dowd said...

Carl: I suggest you get in touch with Michael R. Veach, Special Collections Assistant at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, KY, and a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame since 2006. He's an expert in such matters.

Alton said...

I just drank a small bottle, not sure how old, but it has an ATF tax stamp on it. I'd guess 1970s. Smoothest shot and sweetest smell. I can only imagine what the 1916 stuff was like.